I hang a right turn into the parking area, come to a full stop, but leave the rig in gear. Ahead, at the western end of the parking area, a series of sturdy wooden posts, set in concrete and linked by a couple of rows of cables, define the point at which the land drops away into the hills that roll down toward the sea.
The only way that I’m going to have a chance to creep up on the house in which Norris Hiskott lives is to create sufficient chaos to preoccupy all of the Harmonys, chaos that their puppetmaster cannot afford to insist that they ignore.
I press the brake hard, rev the engine, feel the truck strain to be free, let up on the brake and an instant later the accelerator, snatch the pistol from between my legs as the rig begins to roll, and leap from the cab, kicking off from the step below the fuel tank. I stagger, stumble, fall, roll, and scramble to my feet as the vehicle rumbles toward the fence.
Whether or not the rig is moving fast enough won’t be clear until it hits the posts, but the distance is too short for it to lose much momentum in the approach. The combined weight of the rig and load is probably somewhere around eighty thousand pounds. In my book that is an irresistible force, and the fence falls short of being an immovable object.
I keep pace with the truck, sort of escorting it toward the drop-off. I have decidedly mixed feelings—delight, guilt, relief, anxiety—when the posts crack off where they’re sunk in concrete. They splinter, tumble away, trailing steel cables that snap almost like electric arcs jumping from pole to pole, and lash whistles from the air as they flail down and away. Although the rig seems as if it might hang up on the footings and the remnants of one post, it merely hesitates before taking the plunge.
So this creepy disembodied voice asks me to come up the dimly lighted stairs that look like they might evaporate behind me and leave me with no way down, and what I think of first is how and why my parents always used to tell me not to take candy from a stranger.
What I think of second, while I’m climbing the stairs, is some of the screwy situations kids get themselves into in fairy tales. Like Red Riding Hood visits Grandma’s house after Grandma has been eaten alive, and she’s suspicious and all about this transvestite wolf in Grandma’s nightgown and bonnet, lying in Grandma’s bed, but the twit doesn’t tumble to his true identity until he actually eats her. If the huntsman hadn’t come along to cut open the wolf’s stomach and let Grandma and Red out of there, they would have been nothing but a couple of bowel movements. Of course, it’s also screwy, the wolf supposedly swallowing them whole. If he’d tried to do that, he would need a badger or a bear or some woodland creature to apply the Heimlich maneuver.
At the top of the stairs, there’s a narrow catwalk of stainless steel. The softly illuminated handrail almost fades away in the gloom to the left and right, and there’s only just enough murky light to see a series of steel doors and big windows that look out on the darkness and the freaky sphere.
The sphere is still silvery and glimmering, kind of pretty for something that puts out such a bad vibe, which reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, which I recently read. Old Scarlett is super-pretty and vivacious, and you’ve got to admire her in some ways, but you know almost from the start, this babe is six different kinds of messed up. I don’t think I could have lived back then, if you want to know, because I would have been so mad about slavery and all, not to mention no TV.
Up here on the catwalk, about thirty feet above the floor, I see a feature of the sphere that wasn’t visible from below. In the top third of the thing, a single row of windows seems to run all the way around it. Each is maybe two feet long and like one foot high, set flush in the metal surface with no frames. If you consider the size of the sphere, the windows aren’t really big. They don’t look like ordinary glass, either. What they look like are thick slabs of rock crystal or something. Beyond them, inside the sphere, there’s this deep red light and terrible shadows moving through it ceaselessly, shapeless but disturbing shadows flying and leaping and twisting so crazy. I don’t like this thing at all, and I totally mean that.
As I turn away from the sphere, the stair and railing lights go off. Flanking one of the doors along the catwalk, two big windows brighten, though hardly so you’d notice. When I peer through one of them, I can’t see anything inside, just vague shapes, which probably means the glass is heavily tinted and polarized, so it looks clear from inside but not from out here, which is like the windows in the Harmony Corner diner.
An electric lock buzzes and clicks, and the door between those two windows swings inward a couple of inches, as if I’m being invited inside. Which reminds me of Hansel and Gretel. They come upon a house in the woods, it’s made of bread and cakes, and they right away chow down on it, never once realizing it can’t be anything but a lure and a trap. Then the fiendish old witch invites them inside, and they say sure, this is a cool place, and she’s so obviously fattening them up for slaughter with pancakes and apples and all. It’s like the tenth biggest miracle in history how the old hag, instead of the two urchins, ends up baking in the oven.
So I push the door open wider, and I don’t see any old, wrinkled hag anywhere in there, or a wolf, or any living thing. Living things are nearly always what get you, so as I cross the threshold, I don’t feel quite so naive as Hansel and Gretel. Besides, I’m not here just to stuff some cake down my piehole. I’m here because I’m hoping to learn something about Norris Hiskott that will make it possible for me to smash him as flat as I might smash a bug I didn’t like.
The room has two computer workstations, and along two walls are all kinds of mad-doctor equipment that I couldn’t say what any of it is. In front of one of the two big windows is this long console with a lot of switches, buttons, levers, dials, gauges, indicator lights, and monitors, all dark and silent. The computers are dated, and it feels like no one has been here in a long time. On the other hand, there’s no dust, not a speck of it, as if the place has been airtight since they mothballed the project.
Through the windows, I can see the upper part of the silvery sphere. It looks like the moon come down to Earth.
In the back wall is another steel door, locked. There’s a six-inch-square view window about two-thirds of the way up the door, and when I stand on tiptoe, I can see through it, except the room beyond is dark.
The voice that sounds like that of a Darth Vader wannabe issues from speakers in the ceiling: “Jolie Ann Harmony.”
Turning away from the door, I say, “You again.”
“Tell me about Norris Hiskott.”
“Well, snoop and sneak that you are, you heard everything I said to Harry.”
“That is correct.”
“Then you’ve already heard just about every nasty thing that matters.”
“I would like to hear it again.”
“You should have paid attention the first time. Anyway, what are you, some kind of pervert, you suck on other people’s pain?”
After a silence, he says, with no emotion except curiosity, “You do not seem to like me.”
“There’s that keen insight of yours again.”
“Why do you not like me?”
“Snoop, sneak—heard that anywhere before?”
“I am only doing my job.”
“And what is your job?”
“That is classified information. Tell me again about Norris Hiskott.”
“I want to compare what you said to Harry with what you now will say to me. There may be significant discrepancies. You will tell me about Norris Hiskott again.”
These past five years have given me some bad attitudes, let me tell you, and if there’s one that’s probably going to wreck my whole life once Hiskott is dead and I’m free, it’s that I can’t tolerate being told what to do, even little things. I just can’t put up with it. I really can’t. Even if my mom or dad, when they tell me to do something, just tell me instead of explaining why or asking, I go off. It makes me all nuts, even though Mom and Dad only want what’s best for me. I have to do everything Hiskott tells me to do, what he makes me do, even the thing with Maxy and all. It’s just too freaking much. What I’m saying is, maybe I’ll never be able to hold a job with a boss telling me what to do, because I’ll want to punch him or hit him over the head with a skillet, I don’t know what. Just being told that I will tell this guy about Hiskott again steams me, because I wasn’t born to live on my knees saying “Yes, sir” and “Please, sir” all day long. I just can’t bear it. I really can’t.
“ ‘Discrepancies’ meaning ‘lies’?” I ask. “Listen to me, butthead, I don’t lie. I’m a mess, if you have to know, I’m a train wreck, but I don’t lie, so you can just shut up, you can just stuff it where the sun don’t shine.”
I’m shaking. Head to foot. I can’t help shaking. It’s not fear. It’s not rage, either, or not only rage. It’s also frustration and a sense of injustice and violation. I’m sick of it. And if he says the wrong thing, I’ll start smashing everything in this room that I can smash until he finally has to come out here and show himself so I can try to smash him, too, the sonofabitch.
Sometimes, when I feel this way, night or day, I go down to the beach and take off most of my clothes and leave them where they can be found, above the tideline. I swim out into waves where the sun is broken into a billion bright pieces that look sharp enough to cut me. Or other times, by effort and the effect of the outgoing tide, I make my way into the midnight ocean where I become pleasantly disoriented, and the moon seems to be under the sea like a great albino creature on the hunt, and the stars are not overhead anymore, but instead they are the lights of an unknown settlement on a far shore where no one in this world lives. I swim and swim until my calves ache and my arms feel like iron and my heart seems as if it’ll burst, because if the sea decides it loves me and takes me down to its bed, and if it later washes me back to the beach and leaves me on the sand like a tangled mass of kelp and Sargassum, the cruel man who rules us will have no reason to punish the others for my escape because it won’t be an escape with any consequences for him.
The thing is, I always return to shore, weak and trembling, and I dress and I walk home. I don’t understand how it can always turn out that way. Sometimes it’s love for my family that brings me back, sometimes fear for them, and sometimes it’s love of this beautiful and amazing world. But sometimes I don’t know what brings me back. It’s not Hiskott, because I would remember the invasion. It’s a true mystery. Because I sink and stay sunk, I really do. I drink the sea, inhale it, and can’t find the surface. I pass out. And yet I wake up on the beach and I’m not drowned.
After another silence, my unseen interrogator says, “By ‘discrepancies’ I meant inconsistencies of memory. I know you are not lying, Jolie Ann Harmony. My multiphase polygraph detects neither the vocal patterns of deceit nor the pheromones associated with lying.”
Gradually my shaking subsides. It always does. I mean, I have my moments, but I’m not flat-out psycho or anything.
He says, “I ask about Norris Hiskott only because I need to make a decision regarding him.”
I remind myself that I’m trying to learn something about Hiskott from this guy, just as he’s trying to learn something from me. “What decision?”
“That is classified information. Can you tell me exactly where Norris Hiskott might be in Harmony Corner?”
Although my anger is subsiding, I’ve still got some attitude, so I say, “That is classified information. Another reason I don’t like you is you have no social skills.”
He broods about that while I examine the interesting console, which, I’ve got to tell you, appears complicated enough to control the entire planet’s weather.
Then he says, “You are correct. I have no social skills.”
“Well, at least you can admit shortcomings.”
He’s silent for maybe half a minute, and though I throw switches and push some buttons on the console, the stupid thing remains dark and silent, so I probably haven’t destroyed Topeka with a tornado.
“Can you?” he asks.
“Can I what?
“Can you admit shortcomings?”
“My neck’s too long.”
“Your neck is too long for what?”
“For a neck. If you must know, I don’t much like my ears, either.”
“What is wrong with your ears?”
“Can you hear with your ears?”
“Well, I don’t hear with my feet.”
Again he’s silent. Silence is his frequent refuge, but it’s seldom ever mine.
No cameras are obvious, but I’m sure he can see me. To test him, using a finger, I bore into my nostrils with a way-disgusting, almost erotic pleasure. If I could find something in there, I would really gross him out, but unfortunately there’s no mother lode.
He says, “Your ears and neck are not shortcomings as long as they function properly. However, I have identified a shortcoming regarding your social skills.”
“If you mean I mine for boogers, that’s just part of my ethnic heritage. You can’t criticize someone’s ethnic heritage.”
“What are boogers?”
I stop excavating my nose and try to wither him with a sigh that implies he’s tedious. “Everyone knows what boogers are. Kings and presidents and movie stars know what boogers are.”
“I am not a king, a president, or a movie star. The shortcoming in your social skills that I have identified is this: Jolie Ann Harmony, you are sarcastic. You are a wise-ass child.”
“That’s not a shortcoming. That’s a defense mechanism.”
“A defense mechanism against whom?”
“Defense implies conflict, war. Do you mean to say that you are at war with everyone?”
“Not everyone. Not everyone all the time. But you just never know about people, do you? Especially strange people like you.”
“I must make two points.”
“If you must.”
“First, I am not strange. A strange thing is one difficult to explain, but I am easily explained. A strange thing is something that was previously unknown in either fact or cause, but I am well known to many.”
“You aren’t known to me. What’s your second point?”
“I am not people. I am not a person. Therefore, you are not at war with me and need not resort to wise-ass sarcasm. I am not human.”